Costa Mesa City Council votes against public-private ambulance plan

Rejecting a recommendation by fire officials and city staff for a new public-private model, the Costa Mesa City Council has voted to maintain the city's current ambulance transportation service.

Fire Chief Dan Stefano had recommended a system that would assign ambulance transport to the fire department for patients with serious injuries and to an unspecified private company for non-life-threatening cases.

Such a split service, according to a city consultant, probably would have been a first in California.

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On a 3-2 vote, the council Wednesday elected to maintain the status quo. Under the current service, a fire department truck and one of the city's six ambulances with paramedics respond to all emergency calls. Also responding is a private ambulance operated by Care Ambulance Service, a city contractor since 2008.

All patients are taken to a hospital by the private service; the city's recently purchased ambulance fleet is not used for patient transport.

Patients in critical condition are accompanied in the private ambulance by city paramedics, with a city ambulance in tow to give responders a ride back to the fire station.

Councilman Gary Monahan, who voted to keep the current system, said Costa Mesa's paramedics will continue to be the first responders on emergency calls. He said the system "really isn't broken."

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Righeimer said the fire chief's recommended option would amount to an undue expansion of government and the hiring of more public employees whose pensions are costly for taxpayers.

"Government does not need to be getting any bigger," Righeimer said. "Government needs to be getting smaller."

Councilwomen Sandy Genis and Katrina Foley dissented.

Foley was critical of Righeimer's reasoning, calling his vote against the recommendation "predictable."

"This was never about the care for the community of Costa Mesa," she said. "It's always about a narrow lens which relates to you don't want to hire one more person in the city who might get a pension. That is just irresponsible."

Genis called the current system "horribly inefficient" and noted that the recommended option could have boosted city coffers by as much as $2.5 million annually — about $1.8 million more per year than the city receives now in ambulance cost recovery.

Mayor Steve Mensinger, who voted with the majority, said the city should continue looking at options, particularly its cost-recovery models, to see if it can acquire more funds.

In 2013, the council agreed to a 17-point plan that restructured the Fire Department. It came two years after a decision against disbanding the department and outsourcing fire services to the Orange County Fire Authority.

Capt. Rob Gagne, president of the department's firefighters union, said in a statement that his association is disappointed with the final outcome.

"To have politics get in the way of progress — after the citizens have purchased six ambulances with the intent of transporting, after the 17-point reorganization plan is nearly completed and after the entire city staff, including the CEO, supported and recommended a cost-recovery option — it is disheartening to witness the council majority's inability to move forward," Gagne said.

Zint writes for Times Community News.

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